In Defense of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina (and Jon Hamm’s Penis)

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Photo: Lawrence Schwartzwald/www.splashnews.com

The reviews are in. Four out of five Gen-X feminist writers, unimaginatively chosen to review Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, agree that Wolf’s magical understanding of neuroscience and overreliance on personal anecdote undermine her inquiry into the female genitalia — “the Goddess array,” in Wolf’s parlance — and are generally an embarrassment to the sisterhood. Forget that Katie Roiphe’s writing also combines pop science and her personal life, the Slate columnist "doubts the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career.”

Since then, there has been no end to the mockery. Word got out that Naomi Wolf had written that her vagina is the seat of distinctly female states of consciousness and, voilà, Naomi Wolf’s vagina achieved consciousness on Twitter. It’s hard to find a male reviewer who dared to tackle Vagina, but for each of Wolf’s goofy personifications of neurochemicals there is a handful of male science writers eager to tell Wolf she’s not qualified to handle the discipline. (Where were these guys when Jonah Lehrer was writing?) For efficiency, her poor reviews were bundled into poor review roundups.

Among some reviewers, there seems to be a little generational disappointment in Wolf at play. In The Beauty Myth, it seemed Wolf had arrived to modernize the second wave, but she actually turned out to be something of a New Agey oversharer. My question is, when did we sour on New Agey oversharers? Gender essentialists or no, women who share Wolf’s belief in the sacred feminine also tend to champion the woman-centric alternative culture that goes mainstream, from midwives to by-tweens-for-tweens magazines.

Meanwhile, Wolf’s style of pop-science sex writing — especially involving evolutionary psychology — is everywhere. Not least of all when it comes to male genitalia. Like this flimsy SUNY Albany study about sperm’s anti-depressants effects. Republished on Gawker last month, college-age men have been using it to convince their girlfriends to skip condoms since it was published, a decade ago and without any noteworthy follow-up. Although there was a similar story, picked up by Jezebel, about how semen “literally” (not even close to literally) “controls the female brain.” More evolutionary theories on the phallus sit unperturbed and un-debunked in Jesse Bering's Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

Is it because of sexism that no one called the writers of those stories unfit to write about science? Probably not. More likely, readers who have not been tasked with reviewing a supposedly important feminist text are accustomed to pseudo-scientific sex ed. Sensationalized science has become a genre unto itself — practically speculative fiction — for the same, simple reason we post gratuitous zooms on Jon Hamm’s bulging khakis (see above!): Even in 2012, there is a huge appetite for non-pornographic speculation about what’s going on inside other people’s pants.

Which is to say that the sophisticated reader, the kind who might be able to suspend her skepticism long enough to, say, do yoga or read her horoscope, is equipped to handle and enjoy Vagina, in spite of its scientific limitations. (It’s worth noting that where Wolf’s science is spotty, so is the energy devoted by the scientific community.) Enjoyment is the point of Vagina. A counterpoint to pro-life conservatives who have long used their own magical reproductive science to limit women’s rights, Wolf above all wants women to use their vaginas to have great sex. Neuroscience just happens to be the paradigm du jour for convincing anyone to do anything. More interesting, if more sentimental, Wolf wants to prevent female sexuality from being reduced to a punch line in the Apatow-approved female raunch movement. It’s not the most urgent battle in the war on women, but it’s an idea worth entertaining.